Ordinary Level (O Level) results have just been released and unlike with the Advanced Level (A Level) results, there hasn’t been much said about the gender disparities in pass rates.
And thankfully so.
In January, A Level results released by the Zimbabwe Schools Examination Council (ZIMSEC), for the November 2014 sitting, got the media going about the higher pass rate of female candidates over males, with the former recording a 74% pass rate and the latter slightly behind, with a 68% pass rate.
Some thought this called for a celebration since it seemed a positive result of the numerous local and international campaigns to educate girls. ‘A Level: Girls outshine boys’, read a Herald headline on newspaper banners that day.
There was nothing wrong with noting the difference in pass rates between the two sexes; that is what the statistics objectively state. Additionally, it is a difference amplified by the fact that there were fewer female candidates, than males, who sat for these examinations.
The problem may, however, be in the extravagant way that the feat was celebrated; a manner that by its over-the-top nature made a marvel of girls’ intelligence as though this was something peculiar and uncommon. By celebrating in this way, it is almost as if we are we saying that girls are so incapable that it is a shock when they actually outdo boys. At the same time, it seems we are saying a girl’s success is based on whether she outdoes a boy. That thought reinforces the belief that men naturally do better than women, and that a woman has to beat a man at anything in order for her achievements to be meaningful. By that, we are also saying that men are the only pacesetters that women should aim to emulate.
Gendered adversities and difference
So would it even have made news in the local press that boys recorded a higher pass rate than girls? We may answer the question by assuming that during the past years where there was no mention of one sex doing better than the other, boys had probably done better than girls. As an extension of this argument, let us think of the way we cheer babies or toddlers. When a baby or toddler does something as small as kicking a ball that goes no further than a few centimetres away, we clap and cheer. We do this because at their age, this is a commendable feat, given that they are still undergoing much development. But one does not do the same for an adult, unless of course this adult has had to overcome much adversity to be able to do so.
If we put that example in the context of the results under discussion, then it seems we are commending girls for overcoming some adversity that stands in the way of their success. In previous articles , we have spoken of these adversities which include the fact that oftentimes, girls have to fulfill a range of domestic activities that their male peers are hardly asked to carry out. Indeed, this has had an impact on girls’ capacity to concentrate on educational pursuits, and still does.
But to continually ululate and cheer such successes in overly exuberant fashion serves to reinforce the idea that girls’ success – especially if this success is in science and technical subjects – is something to be perpetually seen as abnormal, even in the year 2015. The same will apply to almost every achievement that a girl makes that is outside the household, giving clear evidence that as a nation we are still engulfed by the patriarchal values that always place men above women in every aspect of life.
It is then not also surprising that this is the same reaction that the new Vice President of Zambia ,Inonge Wina, was met with after the recently held elections in that country. As much as it is not wrong to celebrate that Zambia finally has its first female Deputy President, it is the dwelling on the fact that she is female that is worrying. The fact that Wina is female has also been used to accentuate the fact that Guy Scott, former Vice President of Zambia, failed to retain his seat especially after serving as Interim President after the death of President Michael Sata.
It is this dwelling on sex, and associated expectations thereof, that also recently came into focus when ‘The Australian’ newspaper’s obituary about ‘The Thornbirds’ author Colleen McCullough described her as “plain of feature, and certainly overweight”, something which many argued would not have been referred to were she a male author.
Paying attention to one’s sex, or one’s expectations of a person’s sex, hinders us from taking note of other important issues. For example, in the case of these results it is stated that fewer girls sat for the A Level exams than boys, yet statistics show that there are more females in this country than males. That means we have not yet achieved our goal of increasing the number of girls in schools. That is what we should all have been concerned about the moment these statistics were published. In fact, that is what everyone who claims to be working towards the emancipation of girls should be looking into so that they may address any obstacles that limit access to education by girls.
If we continue to think in a way where every situation is about girls competing against boys, it will not therefore be wrong to conclude that we are still very far from understanding the essence of gender equality. For now, it remains evident that we do not yet fully acknowledge the fact that both men and women have equal mental abilities to take any challenge head on, and should therefore be given equal opportunities to prove themselves.